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Bjorn Rebney: Viacom buying Bellator is a major statement about MMA’s future

By Zach Arnold | October 28, 2011

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USA Today broke the story earlier in the week about Viacom (Spike) buying out Bellator and the promotion making its Spike debut in 2013. Hours after that announcement, Bjorn Rebney talked with Mauro Ranallo about how the deal came about and what it means for the landscape of the sport.

“It speaks volume to the strength of what I believe is the greatest sport on the face of the Earth. And, you know, we’re going to be transitioning to Spike in 2013. In the interim, we’ll be building out the brand and increasing and improving every element of what we do on MTV2 and EPIX & It just gives us an incredible opportunity to work with really smart people who understand our sport backward and forward to build this out and to continue to build traction around our tournament format, our objectivity and some of the greatest fighters on the face of the Earth. So, it gives us every tool to build this out for many, many, many years to come.”

One of the initial critiques of this news breaking is that it will Dana White & UFC time to conjure up a Vince McMahon-style hardball strategy to destroy the competition. Zuffa is ruthlessly aggressive and celebrates the fact that they are as efficient as we see them to be in the business. Mr. Rebney believes that the year off of Spike will give the promotion the proper time to make the right changes to be ready for the bigger television stage.

“From a planning perspective, planning in television happens six, nine months in advance. So, with this getting finalized and with us announcing it now, all the planning starts now for what we launch in 2013 or conceptually sooner. But at the very latest in 2013… and all the bricks being laid right now in terms of everything we’ll do and where we’ll be and how it will be promoted and all the shoulder programming and all the Best Ofs and all the highlights and conceivable other programming vehicles. So, it’s all in place and it’s all getting constructed and built out right now. But it’s exciting. It’s very exciting.”

Dave Meltzer has an old adage about Vince McMahon which is that you may not consider him your enemy or your competition but he considers you to be his enemy and you can either be prepared to defend your turf or else get vanquished. Mr. Rebney gave the smart and appropriate here in response to this scenario, even if it’s not totally a realistic one.

“I think the strongest place to kind of focus every piece of your energy and every piece of your team’s energy is doing what you can do with your brand in building out the fighters, finding the best talent, creating the best feature pieces and stories behind those fighters, improving every element of production for the TV audience, improving every element for the live in-house audience. I respect what the UFC does, I respect what they’ve accomplished. I’ve watched a lot of their shows and if you’re an MMA fan, and this is what’s always shocked me, and if you’re not a fan of the UFC then you’re not an MMA fan. The reality is that regardless of whether you started watching when Royce (Gracie) was fighting in a gi or whether you’ve been watching of late, they’ve got some great fighters and some great talent. We do things differently. We have an objective format. We have what I refer to as a true, real-sport format much like basketball & baseball & hockey & soccer & golf. Athletes complete and the best of the best makes it to the championship and if you win that fight, you’re crowned champion. They have a different format, neither of which are right or wrong, it’s just we’ve chosen one and they’ve chosen another. So, it is what it is. There’s two players in the (MMA) space. They do great shows, they got a great alliance with a great media conglomerate and we’ve got a great alliance with the people who kind of created this position in the sports entertainment arena. It will be what it will be relative to competition and the like.”

Dana White has gone on record about ‘awful MMA contracts’ in regards to boxing-style deals where there are ‘options.’ This is something people railed against when Roy Nelson had his squabbles with Roy Jones Jr. Will Bellator have some ‘poison pill’ clauses in their contracts to make it harder for UFC to raid their fighters? The company better be prepared for UFC to declare war on them and be ready for UFC to getting into some bidding wars.

“We’ve been kind of hyperfocused on developing our own talent. I mean, developing the Ben Askrens and the Joe Warrens and the Eddie Alvarezs and the Hector Lombards and the Pitbull Brothers and all these different fighters who have been kind of homegrown Bellator talent. So, I don’t know, I don’t know. I mean, the space has gotten much smaller. There’re very few of us in the (MMA) space at this point. There’s UFC and there’s Bellator, so I don’t know if that will mean that bidding wars will occur but, you know, we’re hyperfocused on recruiting the best talent out there from every conceivable corner of the globe. So, you know, we’ll see. We’ll see how it works. I think we’re going to continue our format of really trying to build out stars from within, develop them under the Bellator banner, and let them blossom and become stars.”

The one concept that Bjorn Rebney has been willing to fight tooth-and-nail to defend is the tournament concept. He truly believes that the tournament format is the best & fastest way to create new stars. I think there’s some doubt as to how long Spike TV will tolerate a tournament format as opposed to more subjective matchmaking focusing on stars rather than being a feeder system. Mr. Rebney says that you should expect to see the tournament format on all Bellator programming.

“It’s what we will see throughout the entirety of 2012 and it’s what will continue in 2013 on Spike. It just will have the enormous benefit on Spike of being able to complement it with highlight shows and Best Of’s and behind-the-scenes and unique takes on the athletes, real features, real focus put on the fighters who step in to the cage that make everything that I’ve been able to do possible and everything that Bellator’s been able to do possible. A big focus on them and their stories, who they are, where they’re from, and why they compete. And some other programming that will complement it as well. So, we’re going to have a real opportunity with Spike to expand the breadth of the Bellator brand and that’s what they did so brilliantly with the UFC and we’re very, very fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to work with the people that were there from the beginning in ’05 when very few really understood what the sport was or what it was about. So, you know, that’s where we’ll find ourselves and that process begins today. I mean, we’re working on it literally as we speak.”

One of the difficult business issues Bellator has faced is being on MTV2, an audience mostly made of pre-teens and teenagers, who are sporadic in their viewer patterns of Saturday nights. One week, you have 130,000 viewers. The next week, it’s 275,000. There’s never any consistency. Saturday nights provide a lot of obstacles for Bellator in terms of television competition. So, will the network ditch Saturday nights once they head to Spike?

“I’m hardcore when it comes to objectivity,” exclaimed Mr. Rebney to Mr. Ranallo. “So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to review the numbers, I’m going to look at what household numbers look like. I’m going to look when people are around, I’m going to look at what the competition is vis-à-vis basketball, baseball, football, UFC, etc. We’re a year-round operation, we don’t have a season per se like football does in the Fall, etc. So, I’m going to look at all the numbers and then that’s going to ultimately, sitting down with our partners at Spike and at MTV networks, determine what night we’re on. I want to be on the night where we’ve got the opportunity to reach the largest number of fans and have the opportunity for them to see Bellator and some of the really exciting content, the really exciting events, and incredible Bellator moments that we’re putting on week after week after week. So, I don’t know. There are advantages to Saturday nights relative to audiences. … A lot of fans coming out to the fans but there are disadvantages to Saturday nights, obviously, as well because you’re going head-to-head with PPVs the UFC is doing. So, we’re going to weigh and balance. I don’t really have a favorite night because we haven’t sat down and looked at all the numbers but we will and then we’ll make a determination and those numbers will bare it out.”

As for what kind of programming Bellator will produce on Spike, it will not be 52 consecutive weeks of fighting. In other words, not a prototype of ESPN2’s Friday Nights.

“(We’ll have) two full seasons plus a Summer series and then it will be complement with the Best Of’s and the highlight shows and the behind-the-scenes and the features and conceivably even some form of reality programming that comes behind the brand. Doing a live event literally every week for 12 weeks is a very tough road to hoe and we’ll do it and we’re going to continue to do it and follow the format that we’ve followed. But there will be alterations and changes to that. We’re going to look to try to add more tournaments to each season so that we can get more title defenses in for our champions more frequently. We’re going to continue to adjust and tweak. And you just got keep tweaking it, you got to keep turning the dial a little bit here and a little bit there and making those adjustments to be able to create the best programming and the best events you possibly can.”

The news of Viacom owning Bellator brings up a lot of memories of when Turner owned WCW. It created quite a firestorm and led to some remarkable history being made. If Bellator is WCW and UFC is WWE, we could definitely see some big surprises developing over the coming years. Whether or not ‘corporate’ MMA is good or bad for the sport… time will tell. There’s no question, however, that Mr. Rebney found the appropriate golden parachute for Bellator by selling to Viacom. Without Viacom buying a stake in the company, it’s hard to see how long the company would have continued to survive. Now? Game on.

“(Viacom) purchased a majority stake in the company, over a 50% stake on the company and I am with the company as its chairman and as its CEO and I’ll be making the decisions at the company. But, you know, the wonderful part of this equation is that when I’m making those decisions, you know I always used to sit back years ago when I was conceptualizing this and putting the business plan together and I used to dream about a day where I would not be the smartest guy in the room. I used to dream about a day when I would be able to turn to people who knew far more about elements of this business than I did and say, ‘What do you think? What should we do with this? How would you construct this? What would you change with this?’ And now, you know, I’m a great spot. I’m in that position. I can turn to people who’ve really written the book ijn this space in many, many areas and say, ‘What do you think? Let’s chalkboard this thing. Let’s construct what we want to do. Let’s figure out what the best move is.’ And that’s just an ideal, ideal position for somebody like me to bei n because you’ve got access to people who just know it backward and forward.”

Look at how fast the landscape of the sport has changed in a year. Ari Emanuel brokers a huge 7-year, $700 million USD deal between Fox and UFC. Viacom, looking to replace UFC content on Spike TV, ends up buying a majority stake in Bellator. Whether or not you think Bellator can succeed on Spike TV, the truth is that Viacom is making a hell of a statement in regards to where they see MMA programming as an effective cable property play.

Just ask the man who cashed out big this week.

“It’s an endorsement by one of the largest, most powerful, most innovative entertainment companies on the face of the Earth. They reach 600 million people with their entertainment content. They are available in virtually every country on the face of the Earth. These guys… this team of people at Viacom are as smart as there is in the entertainment business and they have made a real investment in the future of Mixed Martial Arts. It happens to be Bellator and that’s great for me and for the people who work at Bellator and the fighters who fight here. But it’s a bigger statement. It’s a statement that a huge media giant that’s very powerful and has every conceivable piece of information at their disposal says that Mixed Martial Arts is here to stay, it’s going to grow exponentially, and we are behind it to make it grow exponentially and that’s a very, very loud statement for our sport. It’s a very loud statement for our sport. I’m thrilled that it’s our brand that they’ve committed to but it’s a big statement for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. it’s a good day for MMA and at the same time a good day for Bellator.”

Topics: Bellator, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 9 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

9 Responses to “Bjorn Rebney: Viacom buying Bellator is a major statement about MMA’s future”

  1. 45 Huddle says:

    The only statement Viacom is making is that they want to have MMA programming on SpikeTV in the future. And that they have learned from the past and know that in order to keep that MMA programming, they need to own the rights to it. But at the end of the day, that still has to turn a profit.

    1) Dana White: “Dude, this is what we do. This is what we do literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s not what Spike does.” And this is basically why Viacom buying Bellator won’t work in a nutshell.

    2) Giving the UFC an entire years warning isn’t that bright. It’s great for some of their champions who might get into bidding wars to up the price. It’s the same as with UFC vs. Strikeforce. The UFC gains no matter what by going after those fighters. If they sign them, they steal away their talent. If they don’t, they force up the market value of them. And I don’t care how much Viacom has. If Bellator isn’t making money long term its gone.

    3) Rebney hides behind the tournament format because he basically says the matchmaking is out of his hands. Which is total BS. They pick the 1st round fights. They pick the 2nd round fights based on who is left. Travis Wiuff having to now win 4 more fights to become LHW Champion of Bellator is horrible and the bigger stage you get on the more fans will grumble about those things.

    4) Rebney also hides behind the tournament format because it’s the only way to keep costs down. It’s an easy way to dangle one decent payday in front of a bunch of fighters. But as we have seen with their Bantamweight Champion, that doesn’t help much. He has gone on record to say that he would have made more money if he basically didn’t enter that tournament. The bigger camps aren’t stupid. They can do the math.

    Here is how this will play out. As soon as Bellator gets on SpikeTV, the athletes will expect more money. It happened with Strikeforce. It happens with the UFC. The bigger format, the more the fighters expect. The UFC will offer champions who’s contracts come to an end (and they do eventually come to an end), good money. This is when we will find out what type of business this will be for Viacom. If they sign back some of those champions, it’s game on. If they don’t, then they are treating Bellator like TNA, which is a way to get moderate ratings and not break the bank.

    If history tells us anything, it will be the later of the two, which will end up just making Bellator a defacto, hard to get out of, feeder system for the UFC’s model.

    I just don’t put much into a bunch of corporate heads putting as much effort into a sport that Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta think about as their life….


    On a side note….

    Zuffa is still talking with Showtime. If something comes of that, I expect a full female roster on Showtime and potentially a place for some of the younger male prospects to be.

    If that is the case, then Bellator will really be competing with Strikeforce for up & coming talent and then with the UFC for keeping the talent once they have made a name for themselves. Good luck with that.

    We’ve seen this all before. It never ends well. You would think Viacom, after seeing first hand what Zuffa does to competition, would have learned their lesson.

  2. Steve4192 says:

    “The news of Viacom owning Bellator brings up a lot of memories of when Turner owned WCW.”

    That’s one way of looking at it.

    Another, less flattering, WCW-based comparison could be made to the AOL-Time Warner merger. Prior to that merger, Ted Turner was able to do whatever he wanted and he committed all kinds of resources to making WCW a legit competitor with the WWF. Post-merger, Turner had to answer to the bean counters, and they cut his purse strings and killed off the wrestling promotion that he had put so much time, effort, and capital into building.

    Yet another comparison, one that is more recent and is within the MMA industry, would be Scott Coker selling off a piece of Strikeforce to SVSE. That relationship worked great for a while, but eventually SVSE lost patience and sold the company out from under Coker.

    This sale is a double-edged sword for Bellator. It could be the greatest thing that ever happened to them, or it could be the beginning of the end. Only time will tell.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      This sale is a double-edged sword for Bellator. It could be the greatest thing that ever happened to them, or it could be the beginning of the end. Only time will tell.

      In my estimation, I don’t see how Bellator could have survived long-term without having someone like Viacom buy a majority stake. They had to do it and get the stability & resources to upgrade the company’s chances.

    • Keith Harris says:

      WCW was largely killed from within by the wrestling minds inside the promotion – Eric Bischoff, Hulk Hogan, Vince Russo, Kevin Sullivan, etc. The reason that they started cutting costs while the AOL/Time Warner merger was being negotiated is that they were starting to bleed money at a tremendous rate by the summer of ’99, thanks to bad booking and horrible storylines driving tons of fans away. WCW lost more money in 2000 than all their prior money losing years combined at a time when they got paid much more money in TV rights fees from TNT/TBS, because they put on a product people didn’t want to pay to see, which is the same problem TNA has now with largely the same cast of characters involved.

      I’m not sure I buy into the WCW vs. WWF comparisons, because UFC are in a whole hell of a lot stronger position than the WWF was in ’95, after they had been seriously wounded by the bad press and the costly expense of Vince McMahon’s steroid distribution trial of the previous year. Bellator are in a much weaker position than WCW was too, who had a long track record of drawing strong ratings on TBS on Saturday evenings before they started running head to head with the WWF on Monday night in prime time. This is much closer to WWE vs. TNA in 2010 with the only exception being that Viacom has bought Bellator, while they’re happy for the Carter family to take the expensive hit of running TNA.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        WCW was only profitable for a year or two throughout it’s entire existence. It’s a poor example for any sort of business comparison. It was around because Ted Turner liked wrestling and had money to blow on it during his most successful years.

        No MMA company is like that….

  3. Alan Conceicao says:

    From Rebney’s perspective, there are no negatives because there was no alternative. What he’s managed to do is what the UFL wished had happened. If Viacom cuts the purse strings or whatever, well, he got paid longer than he should have.

    I don’t like the guy or his history and I think the clauses in Bellator contracts are a joke. He’s given people promoterspeak in the most two sided of ways all along and the shows aren’t even that watchable.

  4. Alan Conceicao says:

    Comparisons to pro wrestling promotions are silly, people. Bellator can’t take poorly utilized fighters in the UFC and let them get released and turn them into megastars. There are no creative magic bullets to do that.

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